If you’re looking for a city that encapsulates the best of French urban lifestyle, head to Lyon.
It doesn’t take me long to realise that Lyon is made for lingering. This lovely city of riverfronts, café-cluttered squares and genteel boutiques encourages browsing, strolling or idling away an hour over pastries. It encourages what the French call flânerie, a thoroughly enjoyable and stylish time wasting. Local students are doing just that along the river, where they sunbathe and strum guitars. Retirees have taken up street-front positions over coffee, swivelling their heads at the shocks of passing, youthful fashions. Behind the windows of the lived-in old town, cutlery tinkles on the plates of long lunches.
Lyon isn’t Paris but, less hurried and more approachable, it might just be France’s top town. It loiters between the bourgeois proprieties of northern France and the bohemian, laidback attitudes of the south. It isn’t overwhelmed with tourists, it has fine museums and distinctive neighbourhoods and so many good restaurants that I resort to wild gluttony.
Even better, this is the gastronomic capital of France. Top chefs come here to train, and the granddaddy of them all, hometown boy Paul Bocuse, is a three-Michelin-star legend with several restaurants in town. Les Halles de Lyon food market is a mouth-watering meander amid truffles, Beaujolais wines and premium sausages. Patisseries are an endless temptation of macaroons, pink tarts and the local speciality, marzipan ‘Lyon cushions’.
My local guide has given me tips on how to identify authentic Lyon eateries, known as bouchons: they have red-and white checked tablecloths, a city-awarded ‘authentique bouchon Lyonnais’ plaque beside the door and andouillette on the menu. True, I don’t care for this evil-smelling tripe sausage, but it’s an indicator that other traditional dishes are served. I devour dumplings, duck pâté and creamed pike, and have better meals in two days than I’ve had in multiple visits to tourist-trap Paris.
In between eating, bouts of sightseeing work up more appetite. I start off on Fourvière hillside above the town, with its Roman amphitheatre that gazes towards the summits of the Alps. Nearby is Lyon’s looming hilltop basilica, glorious with Byzantine-style mosaics, and a mighty statue of the Virgin Mary squinting into the sunshine. Below, the exclamation marks of medieval church spires punctuate the old town. Steps bring me a thousand years downhill through a dishevelled park and into World Heritagelisted St Jean. Its streets alternate between French Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles: cobbles, wrought iron, gargoyles, headless saints, leaning walls. Covered passageways known as traboules burrow through old buildings and their cramped, washing-hung courtyards.
Adjacent St Georges is a quieter section of the old town, which I enjoy for its shuttered streets and lovely buildings, a legacy of the silk trade that made Lyon wealthy. (Soierie Saint Georges is the last surviving silk manufacturer, where a Jacquard loom is still used to create beautiful textiles.) From here, it’s hop over the slender Saône River to the newer part of town, called Presqu’Île or ‘Almost Island’ because it’s also flanked by the Rhône River. It’s a grander, nineteenthcentury district of fine squares and shopping. A fine neo-classical opera house is topped by a contemporary glass dome by star architect Jean Nouvel.
A few minutes’ walk brings me to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which not only has the biggest collection of Impressionists outside Paris but some rather interesting old Etruscan, Persian and Sumerian art, too. There are no crowds or queues, and the leafy courtyard is another great spot for idleness and feet resting.
The pointy part of Presqu’Île where the two rivers meet is startling. In this revamped district the latest in cutting-edge architecture rises in lurid lime-green and orange. The Musée des Confluences – housed in a weirdly-angled, ultra-cool building – is my unexpected find. It delves into everything from the Big Bang to the human brain by way of Peruvian mummies, moon rocks and African masks. Lyon has a long pedigree, but this new museum places it firmly into the adventurous here-and-now.
There aren’t too many reasons to head further west across the Rhône, but it’s a joy to rent a bike and cycle upriver to vast Parc de la Tête d’Or, France’s largest public park, with its wandering deer and strutting flamingoes. I take a rather unexpected pedal past the giraffes of the zoo, peering over their fence like disapproving spinsters at Frisbeeplaying teenagers with their shirts off. Greenhouses bulge with orchids and acres of lawn seem designed for more sun-dappled flânerie. In Lyon, lingering pleasures are all around.